Where does your marketing department fit when it comes to innovation?  In their article1, “Improving Marketing’s Contribution to New Product Development,” these author’s offer a dismal view:

“The prevailing view in most companies is that marketing is not a distinct function, and therefore, everyone can do marketing.  As a result, the status of the marketing department is in a steep decline, which is especially observable within the NPD process.  This development is surprising because it seems that top innovators strongly involve the marketing department in the NPD process.  Hence, strengthening the marketing department’s position with respect to NPD should be a priority to improve innovation performance.”

I agree.  But I believe the authors fall way short of what is needed to do that.  Their research points to two recommendations.  First, marketing departments need to excel at market research skills and tools to translate customer needs into product specifications.  Second, marketers should have strong market knowledge and a good understanding of the firms product portfolio.

Seen this way, marketing becomes nothing more than a market research department in support of R&D.  This grossly underwhelms the potential of a strong marketing mindset within an organization and the potential for great innovation.

For marketing to lead the innovation effort, I recommend the following:

1. Develop an Innovation Competency:  Innovation is a skill, not a gift.  It can be learned by anyone and applied systematic.  Innovative companies treat it as just another core skill by creating a well-defined set of innovation competencies and embedding them into employee’s competency model along with other required behaviors such as ethics and leadership.  A innovation method such as SIT, for example, gives a marketing employee the ability to “innovate on demand.”

2. Link Innovation to Strategy:  Marketing is the battle arm of any company, and it should lead the development of strategy.  When it links strategy with the innovation efforts inside an R&D department, it becomes more influential in what gets put through the NPD process.

3. Drive Innovation as a Process:  Defining innovation as just the NPD process is too limiting.  Marketing needs to sponsor cross-functional teams using systematic innovation tools that feed concepts into the NPD process.  Marketing needs to eliminate the “fuzzy” in the front end and make it crystal clear with a routine, sustainable process of generating new opportunities.

4. Innovate Under the Radar: In this month’s Harvard Business Review, Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg make a great point in their article, “The Case for Stealth Innovation.”  Savvy marketers know how to operate under the radar and nurture innovation programs through complex bureaucracy.  Thomas Bonoma’s classic HBR article from 1986, “Marketing Subversives,”said something similar:

found that under conditions of marketplace change, success depended
heavily on the presence of marketing subversives in a company.
Subversive marketers undermined their organizations’ structures to
implement new marketing practices….And no matter what higher
management had decided to allocate to various marketing projects, the
subversives found ways to work around the official budget.  They
bootlegged the resources they needed to implement new, more appropriate
marketing practices.”

The same can be said about innovation.

1Drechsler, Wenzel, Natter, Martin and Leeflang, Peter S.H., “Improving Marketing’s Contribution to New Product Development,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, Volume 30, Number 2 (March 2013), 298-315.